Tuesday, April 29, 2008

I don't really have a whole lot more to say on this topic, but I've had a number of very interesting conversations about it offline, and I thought I would pass along a few things. (to the people who said these things: I'm not specifying who said what because I'm not sure if you'd want your name here, but I'll certainly credit you if you let me know you don't mind.) Some are from e-mails, some are paraphrases.

"God is just way too large to be contained by any doctrine or any so-called set of facts. He/She transcends it all, but chose to create us as unique individuals which I think is a signal we are also 'allowed' to be unique in our expression of faith."

"Right answers become a new form
of works--righteousness
excluding grace"

It was pointed out to me that on my list of interpretations of the resurrection, I left out the one where God the Father loves us so much that he is willing to sacrifice his only Son in order to save us. "thinking of the resurrection literally allows us a tool for conceiving of what a truly loving god would be."

And also. I set up for myself an "either/or" truly worthy of a fundamentalist: either the literalist interpretation is correct, or the metaphorical interpretation is correct. And of course, after having a few days to ponder that one, there are many options in between, including my own idea from several months ago: take it seriously, but not literally. But here's another idea.

I listened to a lecture series on the Apostle Paul last fall that was excellent. It was done by a professor from a major university, who may want nothing to do with this blog so I'll leave his name off. I thought he did a terrific job of running the gauntlet between secular literary criticism and faithful consideration-- a great role model for what I want do myself. He pointed out, as most thoughtful scholars of the scriptures do, that the traditional interpretations of conservative Christians sometimes don't have much support in the text itself-- rarely are things as clear-cut as the literalists would like you to believe.

But anyway, he points out that the New Testament writings were written when the new religion was still very young. It is clear that the writers expected Jesus to return any minute. It is clear that their emphasis was on spreading the news about Jesus as far as possible during the brief time they thought they had before Jesus' return. We don't know how those particular writers would respond if they knew that 2,000 years later Jesus would not have returned. Not to mention that in the meantime, the letters and accounts they wrote would have been used for both good and nefarious purposes. But it isn't difficult to imagine that they might have reconsidered certain points and moved on to different emphases.

It occurs to me that the writers themselves would be surprised that we were even talking about this. The New Testament writers, especially Paul, were Jews with considerable knowledge of the Jewish law. They had had to completely re-interpret what they knew about God's law based on what their new experiences were as followers of Jesus. I think it's entirely possible that they would be the first ones to argue that God's law is always interpreted in light of your own experience, your own times, and that this interpretation must be carefully and consciously undertaken. Rather than operating under the assumption that the way you were taught is the only way. Honestly, sometimes people who are strict literalists sound exactly like the Phraisees, who after all, could cite chapter and verse to back up their arguments with Jesus (just like the literalists can today).


Wednesday, April 23, 2008

so here's one of the things that happened. A couple of days after I deleted those posts, I woke up at about 6 a.m. with this question ringing in my head, as if someone had just spoken it: "Are you willing to go to hell if you're wrong?" I spent the morning turning that question over and having several somewhat visceral reactions. It took me until noon to realize that the question itself was fundamentalist and not necessarily legitimate. All the underlying assumptions-- that there is a hell, that people go there based on whether or not their theology is correct, that you could be punished for eternity for honestly asking questions-- all of that comes from the way I internalized the religion of my childhood. It was such an enormous feeling of relief to just let it go. But then over the next few days, it came back. It's still hanging around back there in my brain somewhere. I guess you never entirely get over this stuff.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Well, you will be able to tell that this topic struck a real chord with me. I edited and edited the previous posts, then ended up deleting them. They stayed deleted for almost a week. But I've decided to put them back in, because I think they make a good point about recovering from fundamentalism. I guess I'm sort of setting myself up as a sociology experiment here (although if it was sociology, would it have to be a group of us? maybe it's a psychology experiment). I realize that if you don't come from a religious background, I've made myself ridiculous with all this dithering back and forth, but it is ridiculous, so I will let that stand. I did edit them (again). And I have a bit more to say, too.


Tuesday, April 15, 2008

previous post, revisited

You know, if I were writing a book, I'd go through the process of thinking all this out and you, my gentle readers, would only get the final product. And wow, would it be amazing. (just kidding.) But since this is a blog, I'm still thinking this out, and I have reactions to the things I've written and posted that sometimes surprise me. So I have to confess that the post about Easter has crossed some sort of internal line for me. I'm really uncomfortable with it. The day after I wrote it, I came back online to delete it. But then I re-read it, and it seemed OK, so I left it (although I did edit it a bit). But it felt like an act of bravery to leave it. Then yesterday, still thinking about it, I went back and added the postscript. But I still feel off-kilter about it, and I don't really know another way to describe it.

The problem, I think, is that the two different ways of interpreting scripture-- the literalist view that sees the Bible as the inerrant (without error) Word of God vs. the more nuanced way of reading the Bible to discern its wisdom, how it applies to our lives today -- are so different that bringing them together in the same post makes me really uncomfortable. When I am standing firmly in my new way of thinking, whether or not the miracles of Jesus "really" happened or the resurrection "really" occurred is irrelevant. It's not that I don't believe they happened; in fact, I would be disappointed if someone was able to prove that they didn't. It's just that it doesn't matter whether or not they happened in order for me to read and learn from the text.

But if you're still in the other way of thinking, that is just so wrong. If you say it doesn't matter, it's the same as saying it didn't happen. And if it didn't happen, then what the heck is it that we believe? (someone in that tradition would say.) If it didn't happen then Jesus was a charlatan, a liar, or nuts. This is an old argument. We've all heard it before. But the fact that someone who was still in that mindset could come along and read the previous post and think that I was arguing that the resurrection didn't occur is very uncomfortable for me. Uncomfortable to the point of wanting to delete the evidence. Sometimes this is just so hard.

to be continued, but not today.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Easter, a little late

In the process of trying to re-imagine my Christian heritage, Easter has become a tough holiday. It wasn't always that way. When I was considerably younger, I leaped straight out of conservative Christianity into a liberal Episcopal church where it would have been considered a bit naive to actually believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus. And that suited me just fine. I find the resurrection, as a symbol of the triumph of good over evil, love over hatred, and life over death, to be an inspiring and worthwhile story with endless layers of meaning that have little to do with whether or not it actually happened. You have the underdog, itinerant preacher with no political power who manages to outlast by many centuries the power structures that destroyed him. You have the man who simply, with great love and little fanfare, lays down his life for his friends, and is met (during the hours before his death) with hatred, cruelty, and torture-- and yet the love is stronger than the hate and consumes it. You have the symbolism of spring, the rebirth of life after the long winter, that resonates with the rolling away of the stone and the empty tomb--the endless cycle of life after death. It's an archetypal story with endless interpretations that really don’t depend on whether or not Jesus's three-days-dead body actually got up out of the tomb and walked away.

But as I've delved back into my past and tried to understand my background better, I've realized I missed some steps in there, some steps in the process of moving from a literal interpretation of Jesus' resurrection to the more symbolic. Because if you read the accounts of the resurrection carefully, you can't escape it. It is abundantly clear that the writers of the New Testament believed that Jesus reappeared to his disciples after his death.

Of course there are whole books on this topic. There are all kinds of ways to explain it away. Jesus wasn't really dead and he revived in the tomb. Jesus' body was stolen, and when the disciples found his empty tomb, they erroneously concluded that he had risen, and subsequent stories of Jesus sightings are just like Elvis sightings today. And then there are books by people who tried to explain it away and couldn't and ended up being converted (such as, famously, Josh McDowell in Evidence that Demands a Verdict).

But even if you accept that Jesus did die and was resurrected, the story is not nearly as clear cut as I believed when I was growing up. In the New Testament accounts, no one actually witnessed the resurrection. In the Gospel of Mark, the earliest account, a few of Jesus' disciples arrive at the tomb to find a man in a white robe sitting there, who tells them that Jesus has risen and gone ahead of them into Galilee. The resurrection has already happened. And that's where the earliest manuscripts end (check this out in Mark 16-- every modern translation includes a footnote that says the most reliable manuscripts end at verse 8). The sightings of Jesus after his resurrection and the interactions of the resurrected Jesus with his followers were added later, possibly decades later, and are therefore considered by some to be less reliable.

If you read it from this perspective, it makes a kind of sense. The kinds of interactions that are described are exactly the kinds of things that you would say if you were trying to convince someone that the resurrection happened—lots of people saw him; he was seen eating food; people touched him; my friend Thomas who is a terrible skeptic was even convinced. It’s the way rumors get started, and it still happens today. It's not hard to imagine that someone who passionately believed that Jesus had been resurrected might years afterward add a series of events that would prove the point, with no deception intended. They are just verifying what they are sure is true.

And, anyway, what exactly would it mean if Jesus was resurrected? Did the body in the tomb re-animate and get up and walk out? (Growing up, that’s what I always assumed.) Or did he rise again with a "resurrection body," a body that was physical, but different in some way from the body he had before he died? Or did he rise again in spirit only, without a literal physical body? If you choose your verses carefully, you can argue each of those interpretations of the resurrection fairly convincingly. But whichever interpretation you choose, if you're going to take the New Testament accounts seriously, you can't deny that the authors themselves believed most sincerely that Jesus came back to life after he died, however it was accomplished. And furthermore, they felt the resurrection-- not the teachings of Christ, not the symbolism of what he did-- was what made their new religion possible. Paul says in the first letter to the Corinthians, "And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith." Hard to get much clearer than that.

In a way, it's my whole dilemma in a nutshell. I want to move on to a different kind of faith (and honestly, I already have-- there's no going back at this point), but the parameters of my former religion as spelled out in its founding documents don't allow for a this. I haven't been able to reason my way from literalism to a more nuanced understanding, because the writings themselves want to be taken literally. What I've done is decide that it was important for them, in their time and their situation, to be literal, but literalism is not possible for me (as I've explained ad nauseum in other posts). The way I read the Bible now involves some give and take with the text, some flexibility, some interpretation. and of course that is sacrilege to anyone who still believes it, not to mention the sacrilege of questioning the resurrection.

p.s. just for the record, I would like to point out that the point of this post is not whether or not the resurrection occurred—I think I managed to avoid stating an opinion on that. It's just the most in-your-face obvious example of the difficulties involved in moving away from the fundamentalist mindset.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

About ten years ago I read a book called Archangel by Sharon Shinn. It has become my all-time favorite beach read. I'm almost embarrassed to admit how much I love that book, because it is mainly a straight-up romance, and I'm usually pretty snooty about romance novels. Of course since it was successful, it is the first book of a series, which now includes at least four other books-- I've sort of lost count, beause none of the rest of them are as good as the first so I haven't paid as much attention to them. (Stay with me here, eventually this will be relevant to the topic at hand.)

Archangel is vaguely science fiction-y, although once the story gets started, that doesn't really enter into it. It takes place on a planet called Samaria, which is governed by a race of angels-- real-life angels that fly around with feathered wings. The head guy, the archangel, is forced to marry a slave girl, and like all Cinderella stories, it turns out happily after a series of obstacles have been overcome.

But the reason I'm bringing it up, other than to recommend it if you need a beach read, is because of an interesting subplot that runs throughout the series. What you find out, only very gradually, is that the inhabitants of Samaria are refugees from Earth, but other than a single person per generation, no one on the planet knows this. The angels are actually genetically altered humans, and they have abilities that appear magical because they are aided by a spaceship that is still up there orbiting the planet. The angels and the ordinary people of Samaria all believe that it is God who causes medicines to fall down out of the sky, or brings rain in times of drought, etc, but the reader starts to figure out that all of this is happening because of the spaceship.

Not much is made of this in the first book. But as the series progresses, the implications are spelled out more thoroughly. The spaceship begins to break down, and someone has to figure out how to repair it. And eventually, in the second book, the archangel (who is female this time) actually visits the spaceship.

So what do you do when the God you have believed in is proven unequivocally to be false? There she is on the spaceship, seeing the mechanisms that alter the weather and provide the medicines and so on. It is clear that these functions are being handled in ways that have nothing to do with a Supreme Being. But she has a whole lifetime of spiritual experiences that go beyond these pseudo-miracles that say that there is something true about what she has believed all these years, even though the framework has been proven false. So you might even say: she's learning that her religion isn't true, but her spirituality still has validity. She's trying to understand what that means.

Me, too.